Critics every so often mistakenly treat as feminist the works of female artists produced in the heyday of feminism, without considering the discourse actually proposed, the context of the specific production and the artist's whole oeuvre. It is forgotten that a fundamental element of feminist art was the fact that the artists who came under this category actually assumed that posture themselves. They declared their autonomy and made positive light of differentiating between the artwork of women and of men, by questioning at once the prevailing art and woman's place in art history. Several female artists at the time, although informed by feminism and benefitting from the circumstances that were developing, did not assume a subjectivity that differed to the predominant stance or propose any discourses specific to women. Some of these artists addressed other urgent issues, often related to the political context in which they found themselves, seeing as there were numerous countries in a state of exception, ruled by dictatorships, for example. Many of them also dealt with universalities and were engaged in the contemporary art circuit alongside male artists, distancing themselves from gender issues. Therefore, to hastily label certain works as feminist is to disregard their autonomous decision to have taken a stance outside that particular movement at a time of major political conflict.
Today, the proposal of differentiating to include, which was at the root of feminist art, no longer has any force of positive effect. To classify as feminist art the current work of certain women artists due to their favoring a critical angle on related topics is to restrict their aesthetic potential; as if the work were limited to a subjectivity, like placing it apart from the whole, as if it appealed just to one particular group. Sometimes undeclared by the artist herself, the idea of feminism is less contained in the work itself and much more associated to the perspective or context of the viewer.
In the western world - where the Muslim woman, despite the encompassing plurality, seems to have been chosen as the great victim to be saved from her patriarchal and conservative society - it is not rare to encounter the expectation that women artists from predominantly Islamic countries assume a feminist posture in their works. Likewise, works focused on the image of the woman or that hold the notion of the feminine as an object end up being received and absorbed according to a feminist perspective on another's culture - a reading that ends up emphasizing the artists as women. However, on the one hand these artists tend to reject such focus on their gender, understanding it as an issue already surpassed. On the other hand, they recognise themselves as autonomous and just as instilled in art production and history as any other artist, male or female. Their works, even when proposing new discourses and a more openly feminist view on the world, in general intend to spark broad, aesthetic and conceptual discussions. A fine example is the artistic research of Safaa Erruas.
The feminine is undeniably the artist’s subject matter and the titles of her works at times indicate an autobiographical basis. But, whereas the personal dimension is extrapolated as soon as the choice of ordinary materials – common to (almost) every society – is made, the feminine, despite what one may think initially, is not presented as simply a matter of gender.
Much of Erruas’ repertoire is composed of elements usually associated to delicateness and seen as belonging to the female universe (cloth, thread, porcelain, pillows and flowers). The idea of purity – epitome of the idealization of the feminine – is evoked by the almost exclusive use of white, which however, is not presented in immaculate form. Over, around, inside or interwoven in these white matters that literally and symbolically function as the feminine’s surface, we can see metal elements, many of which are pointed or sharp (needle, razor blade, knife, wire). This material dialectic generates unease, denying the feminine the possibility of remaining innocent, putting it at risk. This clash might be the result of the encounter between the masculine and the feminine, if it weren't for the tenuous nature of the chosen metal objects suggesting that the confrontation of shapes, textures, sensibilities and potentialities represents, rather, the feminine as an ambiguous, conflicting, sinuous object, impregnated with challenges in itself. The violence – considered a masculine action – of the cuts and piercings in the white surface could refer to the complexity of the feminine, whose intimacy is entered and, at the same time, is open to the world around it. In Erruas’ minimalist abstractions, the feminine, beyond the physical, carnal body – sometimes alluded to in titles and forms – is found in that which is of the existential, the philosophical. And it is projected in questions of the art itself, like the artistic gesture as action, the relation between materiality and ephemerality and between the work and the exhibition space, through site-specific murals like "The moon inside of me" (2009) and "Untitled" (2013), or even the relationship between the plane and the three-dimensionality of the image, through works such as the series "Élatérium" (2010), the slot in which brings to mind both the representation of a vulva and Lucio Fontana’s concetto spaziale.
In her subversion of typically domestic materials, Erruas does indeed open her work to feminist interpretations and brings to the fore questions about a woman's relationship with her body, her sexuality, spirituality and her social place - which may be enlightening either in Morocco, the artist's country of birth, or any other society. But, more importantly, in its abstraction, Erruas’ work has the aesthetic potential of being open to various interpretations.
Independent curator, researcher and writer based in Antwerp, Belgium, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.